Now in its 40th year, Dance on Camera is at a new level of maturity. The annual event at the Walter Reade Theater that once fit into a three-day weekend has expanded to fill five days, Jan. 27–31, and within its brief duration has its own opening night, centerpiece and closing night films.
This year’s festival also takes advantage of the recently opened Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (across 65th Street from the Walter Reade), which will host free screenings of short films as well as conversations and panel discussions with filmmakers on Saturday and Sunday. Many of the regular screenings will also include appearances by directors and participants.
With 14 programs packed into its five days, the festival includes films exploring a wide variety of dance styles, artists and institutions. For New Yorkers, the opening night documentary, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, is an expansive reminder of the rich and often turbulent history of what was once a mainstay of the local dance scene before the company relocated to Chicago. Director Bob Hercules includes a rich array of clips, including Robert Joffrey teaching and conducting auditions, to represent the company’s progress from its 1956 beginnings. He casts a wide net for his on-camera interviews, and many Joffrey dancers, representing all six decades, relate vivid memories.
The film’s opening strikes a jarring note: While proclaiming the Joffrey’s record of innovation and originality, it starts off with scenes of Lar Lubovitch’s Othello in rehearsal. A ponderous ballet already performed by ABT and San Francisco Ballet at the time, this is hardly the type of work that made the Joffrey’s reputation. Too bad the camera didn’t instead capture rehearsals for its recent acclaimed production of Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella; it was far more representative of the smart repertory choices made by Joffrey, whose commitment to Ashton’s works gave them a singular New York showcase for years.
But once the 90-minute film gets going, the performances—and voices—of many talented and personable Joffrey dancers and the company’s never-a-dull-moment history makes for riveting viewing. The fledgling troupe was in Moscow the week that President Kennedy was shot, and a dancer recalls the mute yet eloquent gestures of sympathy they received from Russians on the street.
Coming of age during the 1960s, the Joffrey also had its finger on the pulse of the times as the counterculture emerged and the Vietnam War dominated the news. The documentary rightly gives significant attention to Joffrey’s choices of Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table and Léonide Massine’s Parade in 1973—painstakingly detailed revivals that made these seminal works live for a new generation. There are a few significant omissions and at least one historical gaffe in the film, but it provides an honest, detailed look at a company whose loss New Yorkers still mourn but which has managed to thrive in Chicago.
Another American dance institution with an even longer history—Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival—is the subject of Never Stand Still. The Ron Honsa documentary’s choppy approach takes some getting used to as it interweaves the history of this influential festival and school—giving due attention to Ted Shawn and his male dancers of the 1930s—with what amount to substantial mini-documentaries on such worthy and fascinating subjects as Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, Suzanne Farrell, Shantala Shivalingappa and Gideon Obarzanek, who speak (often eloquently) not only about Jacob’s Pillow but about their own artistic and esthetic philosophies.
They all have some connection to “The Pillow”—as does nearly everyone in the dance world, one comes to sense. (It’s delightful to hear the venerable Frederic Franklin recall The Pillow during its early decades and recall meeting a strange man named Joseph Pilates there, who offered to teach him exercises so he wouldn’t end up so out of breath after performing.) The festival’s rustic home in western Massachusetts is shown in its full photogenic glory, and the film serves as an homage to the art of dance as well as the festival itself.
An intriguing festival documentary is The Space in Back of You, about the influential but relatively unsung Japanese dancer and choreographer Suzushi Hanayagi. She became part of New York’s earliest postmodern dance scene and made significant contributions to several of Robert Wilson’s elaborate productions.
For fans of ballet competitions and their inherent drama, there is First Position, focusing on a particularly interesting and varied selection of contestants at a recent Youth America Grand Prix. Still Moving: Pilobolus at 40 is fun as it chronicles the launch of that distinctive collaborative troupe, offering a glimpse of its founders as shaggy-haired Dartmouth jocks, and offers a touching tribute to the late co-founder Jonathan Wolken. Unfortunately, it bogs down once it turns its focus to the troupe’s collaboration with Art Spiegelman. Wayne McGregor: Going Somewhere offers an in-depth look at the British choreographer who has been much in demand lately.
And for the closing night, there is the truly special—and long-awaited—Check Your Body at the Door, which profiles the New York City club dance scene of the 1990s. It offers a full and vibrant portrait of a number of important dancers, displaying their amazing physical skills in both club and stark studio settings. The film gives a sense of who they were and where they came from—and what dancing meant to them. From the genial (sort of) emcee Archie Burnett to the irrepressible late Willi Ninja and the fiercely glamorous Barbara Tucker, they each have an affecting story to tell—and an idiosyncratic, life-affirming way of expressing themselves through movement.
Dance on Camera 2012
Jan. 27–31, Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. (betw. Broadway & Amsterdam), and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St., www.filmlinc.com; $12.